By: M. Carramaschi
Once upon a time, in the year of 1917, a baby girl was born in the small city of Newport News. Her parents quickly split and so she moved in with her mother, Tempie, and new stepfather, Joe. Tempie and Joe worked quite a bit to support their family, so the little girl spent her time playing sports, dancing, and occasionally working part time to help out.
When the girl turned 15, Tempie got into a car accident and passed away. Quickly afterwards, Joe suffered a heart attacked and passed too. After moving in with her aunt, the girl became very unhappy: her grades dropped, she constantly missed school and got into trouble with the police. The final straw came when the police brought her into custody and took her to reform school. She found living there worse than in the outside, and was constantly beat by her caretakers and supposed helpers. Eventually, she broke out of the reform school, but found herself alone and helpless in the midst of the Great Depression.
In 1934, things changed for her. When she was drawn to perform at a night club, Apollo, her plan was to dance. But when seeing her dancing opponents performing before her, she realized she stood no chance against them. So, she decided to sing. The girl, not so little anymore, had always been reserved and self-conscious, and this reflected on her as she walked shyly onto the stage, hearing nothing but a chorus of murmurs and hostile stares. But as she sang her song the audience was shocked, and demanded a second as soon as she finished. After she performed, she caught the attention of the saxophonist, Benny Carter, who introduced her to various artists and people in the industry who could help her launch her career.
As she began recording her music and getting offered gigs, the girl, now already a woman, gained popularity. However, being a black woman in the 50s was definitely a struggle as she suffered from racist behavior repeatedly, having her colleagues arrested and, of course, keeping her distance from the south. She was endlessly thankful for the friends who defended her, one being the infamous Marilyn Monroe, who told the Mocambo Night Club owner that if he didn’t let the girl in, she would never go there again and would ‘make sure no one did too’. Their friendship became popular, and an important symbol for the breaking down of racial barriers in the music industry.
Year by year, the little girl grew her career to eventually become one of the greatest jazz singers in the world. Her international recognition made her befriend various jazz idols such as Frank Sinatra, win several medals from President Ronald Reagan, and earn a world-renowned reputation for her unprecedented voice.
Like any fairy tale, the little girl eventually fell in love. However, we all know real life doesn’t always have fairy tale endings, and so she quickly ended her marriage after discovering her husband’s frightful criminal record.
By the 1990s, she had recorded over 200 albums, and in 1991, she performed for the last time in the infamous Carnegie Hall.
As the years passed she became sicker and sicker. As she breathed her last breaths inside her Beverly Hills home in 1996, she reflected on everything she had earned. From overcoming economic challenges, to breaking down racial stereotypes, to serving as an icon for black women everywhere, it is safe to say she passed away feeling fulfilled and satisfied with the life she took on.
You may be re-reading this story and thinking you have heard it before. If you are a fan of jazz or history, you probably already know who this little girl is. For those who don’t, the little girl is no other than the jazz icon, Ella Fitzgerald. Along with other African American Jazz artists, Fitzgerald revolutionized the music industry forever. May her legacy and timeless music live on through our radios, lessons and lives.